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Category: rites and ritual

boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

epiphany’s eve: the midnight whispers

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legends enchant me. stories passed from generation to generation. stories passed from village to village, hearth to hearth. legends are the stuff of story and wisdom. one part enticement and charm, along with a dollop of take-away.

img_8844and so i found myself enchanted when i tumbled upon a legend i’d not heard before. it popped from the pages of strega nona’s gift, a storybook my faraway forever best friend mailed me this week.

as i learned while turning the pages, the month of december is one filled with feasts, all of which insist on stirrings in the kitchen. it begins with st. nick (dec. 6), flows to santa lucia (dec. 13), then it’s Christmas eve’s feast of the seven fishes (dec. 24), followed swiftly by the midnight feast of Christmas (dec. 25), and new year’s eve’s feast of san silvestro (dec. 31) when red underwear, for unknown reasons, is required (note to self: go shopping).

it seems those italians do not stop: they roll the feasting straight into january, which is where this story picks up. according to strega nona, my new guide to january feasting, the eve of epifiana — that’s epiphany, from the greek, “to appear” — once again finds everyone cooking. but this time it’s for the beasts and birds, the wee scamperers and the lumbering furry fellows.

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“there was a legend that at midnight on the eve of epiphany all the animals could speak to each other. it was because the ox and the donkey kept the baby Jesus warm with their breath in the manger.

“so the villagers wanted to give their animals a feast…”

and that’s all the prompt i needed. (although if you read along, you find the motivation is merely to squelch the chance of midnight gossip among the animals, lest they peg you as a stingy old cheapskate who feeds them not. which i’d say squeezes some of the charm out of the equation.)

for years now, my annual feast for the birds is a ritual of the longest night, the winter solstice. i make suet cakes, string cranberries, heap a mound of seed into the feeders. as darkness blankets the hours, i make certain my flocks are fed, and fed amply.

so now i’ve another excuse. and in honor of the ox and the donkey who bowed down, who warmed the newborn babe with their breath (as exquisite a furnace as i’ve ever imagined), i baked more cakes, melted more suet, stirred in plump raisins and nuts and seeds. i tossed with abandon last night, the eve of today’s epiphany. i filled the old bird bath that now serves as my trough. scattered cakes and crumbs near the french doors, so i could peek at the merriment come morning.

and sure enough. not long after dawn, as i wandered out to refill the terra cotta saucer that serves as my birds’ winter bath, there before me was one big fat mama raccoon, holding a cake in both of her nimble long-fingered fists.

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breakfast, interrupted

she glanced up but didn’t flinch. she seemed not to mind that i was trespassing quite near to her breakfast. nor that i was offering a warm drink besides. (alas, she didn’t mutter a single word, nothing close to a thanks for the chow; so much for the midnight whispers. although she might insist i’d missed the chatter by a good six hours.)

and now i’ve a new excuse for spoiling my herds and my flocks (i like to think of them in masses, as it makes me feel like the shepherd i long to be). there is something deeply comforting in imagining that i’m the guardian of my critters, in hoping they can depend on me to keep their bellies full.

it’s a simple notion indeed. but it charms me to no end, and satisfies the tug to be God’s caretaker of all creatures, great and small and in between. in a world that sometimes leaves me gasping for breath, making a feast for my wild things is balm. especially on a morning when it’s 15 below. and the ‘coon at my door comes knocking.

what are the feasts that prompt you to stir in the kitchen? and is epiphany, the feast of the three kings, or wise fellows, among the ones that stir you?

sometimes it’s called little christmas, and for me it’s a quiet pause, the last inhale of merriment, before we return to so-called “ordinary time.” may your epiphany be filled with quiet and wonder, and a bright star in your night sky.

one last legend, in short form: the italians also celebrate epiphany with the story of befana, a soot-splattered old woman, sometimes called “the christmas witch.” in the version i love best, a few days before baby Jesus was born, the wise men stopped to ask befana for directions to the manger where Mary and Joseph and the newborn babe would be found. she hadn’t a clue, but offered the travelers a room for the night. come morning, the trio invited her to come along, to meet the Christ child. she declined, saying she had too much housework (therein lies the learning that one oughtn’t be waylaid by mopping; you never know what you’ll miss). once the kings had gone on their way, the old lady had a change of heart. covered in soot, cloaked in a deep-black shawl, carrying her broomstick, she set out in search for baby Jesus. to this day, the story goes, she’s still searching. and as she travels from house to house, on epiphany, she leaves behind fruits and sweets for the good children, and coal, onions, and garlic for the ones who are naughty.

merry blessed epiphany.

the blessing of friday night dinner

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the table is already set. the brisket — five pounds of it — now idles in the fridge. its exercise in surrender — from muscled slab to fork-tender succulence — began yesterday, when for nearly five hours it filled the kitchen, filled the whole house really, even the brick steps just beyond the kitchen door, with olfactory titillation — a mix of chili sauce and bay leaf, brown sugar, red wine, clove and peppercorn.

img_8399no one’s coming for another 12 hours. but the preamble, the moment the binder img_8401of family recipes is pulled from the shelf, the moment i place the call to the butcher who always cracks a joke about my irish surname and my jewish cooking, that’s when i begin to be swept up in the magic of it all.

and this friday night, in particular, brings with it a whole new landscape. for all the shabbat dinners i’ve served, and there’ve been many, this is the first time our firstborn is taking the train, and coming home, or coming back to this old house anyway. his home now is miles away. but not too many miles. not as many miles as he’s been before, and will be again. so, tonight, i am sliding into the folds of a brand-new cloth, one i’ve not before slipped my arms, my heart, into. all week, i’ve had flashes of the old mama i must now be, the one with the ample bosom, and the flour-smudged apron, the one who opens wide the front door, as she pushes back the floppy curls now dripping from the workout in the steamy kitchen, and welcomes in her sprawling brood. (ditch the ample bosom, ditch the flour-smudged apron, and the portrait takes a closer resemblance to my reality.)

i’ve had this friday night on the calendar for weeks now. it’s the shabbat when, after dinner, we will go to synagogue to say the mourning prayers, the prayers of yartzeit, marking the one year since my father-in-law, my boys’ beloved grandpa, the only one they ever knew, died.

for this night, the word went out: please be home for dinner.

and so, some time this morning, our old red wagon, now parked on a leafy college campus in iowa, will point east, pass cornfields and the occasional shimmering tower, and finally pull down our alley, bringing home the son who has now been without his father for a whole orbit of the globe around the sun. another boy will hop off his bike, park it in the garage, maybe think to wash his hands, once inside the bustling kitchen. and the third dinner guest will climb off the train, tuck his briefcase under his arm, and stride along acorn-pocked sidewalks till he gets to this old gray-shingled house.

it’s the blessing of the friday night dinner, a blessing like no other i have ever deep-breathed. as the week lurches to a close, as deadlines are met, and hustle and bustle hit pause, i circle in on final preparations. candles stand erect on the table. lids topple off the coterie of pots and pans. i blanket the challah — the loaf of braided egg bread that’s a staple of shabbat — with the cloth my firstborn penned with brightly-colored markers long ago in kindergarten sunday school. wine will be poured.

and one by one, they’ll trickle in, the boys i love. they’ll have put their busy weeks, their worries and distractions, behind them. i’ll strike the match, put flame to wick, and unfurl the first of the three blessings. blessings for the sanctuary of time we’ve constructed friday after friday, just before sundown, according to ancient text and modern-day awe. for all time is holy, but on friday nights when the table’s set, the candles  are burning, and the faces you love are the ones you look up to see, that’s when the cloak of holiness drapes most certainly around your shoulders.

tonight, we’ll raise a glass of deep red wine, and my husband will lead us in the prayer we call “grandpa’s prayer,” the shehecheyanu, the blessing reserved for the most extraordinary times, the most sacred times. the times when you reach deep down to the bottom of your soul, and pull up grace and blessing. when every pore of your being shimmers with the knowing of how richly, finely, you’ve been blessed, anointed by purest holiness.

and because i stumbled on my own jewish prayer of blessing, of remembering, i too will recite words that stir me to full attention, words that make me bristle with deepest knowing just how sweet the hour is, every blessed hour, and the turning of each season. and the knowing, too, that the ones we love are ever woven into the whole of who we are.

the words are these:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn

may the memory of my beloved father-in-law, arthur zavel kamin, ever be a blessing. and may your friday night be drenched in all that is holy, is deep, is broken loose from the shackles of haste and deadline.

do you have a weekly pause for holiness? what’s your preamble for sinking into sacred time?

the liturgy of dawn

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for years now, that banged-up tin has been ferrying my loads of seed from house to trough for feathered friends…

it begins, of course, in the dark. it begins when i release the loose cocoon, the flannel cocoon, that’s enwrapped my wisps of dream. i flip back the sheets and plant my soles wobbly on the ground. the vestments these days are nearly always variation on the same: stretchy yoga pants, long-sleeve T, bare feet, and the snuggliest sweater i can find.

there’s the splashing and dabbing in the room where water flows. then it’s down the stairs, around the bend, and into the kitchen where the ministration of the coffee begins. beans + water = the next-best reason i get out of bed, the first hot chalice of coffee, the one around which i wrap my palms, deep breathe and drink.

sometimes i play a game. tell myself the coffee has to wait. i can’t partake till i’ve gone outside, till i go deep into the liturgical practice of dawn. but some days i’m more gentle with myself: i pour the steamy black brew and tiptoe toward the door.

before i turn the knob, i pause to lift the lid on the old white tin, the one quite near the door, the one that holds the excuse for going outdoors. a banged-up coffee can, just big enough to hold a dose of seed for all my birds, awaits. i scoop and fill, now fully armed for my morning’s task.

i step beyond the kitchen. i step into the dawn.

that’s where i find the holiness every time. i stand beneath the dome, some mornings star-stitched, but this morning a vast gray puff of cloud. the morning song was no quieter for the lack of starlight. the morning song, already, was at full salute. a trill from the thicket to my left, a piercing cry from way on high and somewhere to my right.

not far off, i hear the morning train, paused at the station. it’s the only hint that other humans inhabit my morning hour. and because this is the april that yearns to be winter, my bare feet felt every ounce of cold. i dashed back in for boots before trudging across the ooze to dump my mix of seeds and nuts and plump dried fruit in the trough for birds.

and not a minute after dumping, the first of two papa cardinals came flitting in. chirped a certain note of gratitude, then filled his beak, and then his belly.

it’s the liturgy of the dawn. the carved-out fraction of an hour that settles deep into my soul. that makes one day richer than another. it’s where my prayer takes root. oh, there might be a whisper here or there, as i shake off sheets and tumble toward the pile of clothes. but it’s not till i’m alone, under the dome of dawn, that the deep-down prayer, and the deep-down quiet settle in.

just yesterday, someone asked me how i find the way to slow time, how i set my own internal clock to a rhythm that allows the sacred to seep in.

“well, it begins with the dawn,” i said. it begins when i’m all alone, just me and God and the birth of another blessed day. (truth be told, i still miss my old fat cat, the furry acolyte who met me at the door, who rubbed his ears against my ankles, followed me to the prayer bench where i often plop on days that don’t insist on abbreviated vespers.)

once i’ve inhaled deeply of the dawn, once i’ve filled my ears with the song of the feathered choristers, watched the flocks swoop in for their fill of what i’ve dumped from my old banged-up coffee can, once i’ve watched the curled-up buds on all the boughs, taken measure of their proximity to blossoming, i lay down an undercoat of prayer. i name the ones for whom the blessings are most urgent. i name the ones i love, one by one, as if the mere pronunciation of their name is an anointing. and then i press those prayers into place through the simple act of breathing. isn’t prayer sometimes simply intermingling earthly breath with the breath of the Divine, heaven’s reach swirling down to lift us from our leaden station? isn’t prayer the posture that takes away what weighs us down, that shares the yoke? that wraps us in the hold that whispers, “you’re not alone. this isn’t yours to carry all by your weary worn-out self…”

it’s the holy hour that pulls me from my bed. the one certain anchor to begin another day. the grace of dawn is my beginning. as if a golden-threaded vestment into which i slip my arms, it’s the only wrap i know that holds the hope of peace throughout the hours still to come.

how do you squeeze in the grace that fills the hours of your day? 

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proper porridge

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i stand at the cookstove, stirring. and stirring. and stirring.

five minutes, maybe seven, bent in prayer. for that’s what seems to happen every time i stand there, spoon in hand, circles upon circles lifeguarding the oats.

oats + water + salt.

that’s the equation. quite simple. all the rest is alchemy, and stirring. keeping the oat bits from crusting against the bottom of my little blue pot, my pot the color of mama robin’s eggs, my pot that made the trip long ago from merry old england, sacred stirring ground of porridge.

oats in the morning — oats done properly, i’ve found — unfurl the day in slow time. meditative time. if ever the cookstove becomes prayer altar it is at the dawn, when the house is only beginning its morning grunts and hisses and shivers and burps. when the kitchen is dark except for the flame of the burner, and the single bulb that casts its faint beam on my pot.

i didn’t used to stand at attention, not for so long a stir anyway. but then i went to londontown, and one chilly morning i found a plump pot of porridge standing sentry on a shelf at a cozy corner cafe. i admit to being charmed by the name — porridge (poetic, with a hint of the ancient, the celtic, perhaps; and as opposed to the more plebeian, american, oatmeal) — as much as the contents lumped inside.

but then i dipped in my spoon. and what i tasted was pure soothe. if food has the capacity to sandpaper the rough spots of our soul — and i believe it most certainly does — then that first spoonful of proper british porridge declared itself “necessary balm.” balm begging to begin the day, every day. or at least the ones when fortification is needed. when what lies ahead in the hours to come just might fell you, buckle your knees.

while swirling the velvety porridge there in my mouth, i noticed the words on the sweet paper pot in which the porridge was served. again, a call to attention.

here’s what i read: proper porridge prescription

WELL WORTH THE WAIT

porridge is a surprisingly tricky dish to perfect (it’s taken us years to get ours right). stirring is good. boiling is bad. slowly, slowly simmering is the key. you just can’t rush a good porridge. so we don’t.

it was cooking instruction as koan, as kenshu (buddhist notions, both; the former a puzzle prompting deeper enlightenment, the latter a way of seeing).

and it captured my attention, all right.

deliciousness was only part of it. if something so simple demands such attention, such practice, i wanted to get to the bottom of it. even if it meant scraping the golden-crisped bits off the bum of the pot.

i turned, logically, to the patron saints of porridgery. i turned to british cookery writers. and there, what i found — for a word girl, anyway — was as delicious as anything i’d slipped onto my tongue.

consider this fine instruction from f marian mcneill, author of the 1929 classic, The Scots Kitchen, who advises that the oats should be sprinkled over boiling water, “in a steady rain from the left hand, stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.”

which prompted this, the sort of snappy retort you might only find tucked in the pages of the british press, where one felicity cloake (oh, such a byline!), food scribe for the guardian of london, put dear f marian in her place thusly:

“having tested this out, it seems to make no more sense than the idea that stirring them anti-clockwise will encourage the devil into your breakfast.”

mon dieu. it’s testy at the cookstove this morning.

snippy retort aside (or perhaps because of it) this miss felicity has stirred her way to the top of my oat-writer’s heap. read along, and i’m certain you’ll promptly agree:

“to even approach the foothills of perfection, you need to use a pan,” she wrote in arguing  against the microwave as appliance of oats.

or this, weighing the intrinsic virtues of milk v. water (might we note that only the brits would get their britches all in a knot debating the ideal ratio of fluid to fluid):

“scottish traditionalists insist that porridge should contain nothing more than oats, water and salt, but such an attitude strikes me as depressingly dour: after all, if no one had ever experimented, then we’d still be eating pease pottage, morning, noon and night. full-fat milk makes a delicious, but queasily rich breakfast, but, even allowing for the time-honoured creamy moat of milk at the end, porridge made with water only has a puritan thinness of flavour. after a bit of juggling, i settle for a 1:2 ratio of milk to water.”

and finally, from the felicity file, there’s her instruction for how you might choose to finish off your bowl of oaty perfection:

“a girdle of very cold milk, or single cream on special occasions, is essential, (traditionally, it would be served in a separate bowl, to keep the oats hot and the milk cold), but a knob of butter, as suggested by readers, while melting attractively into the oats, proves too greasy for my taste.”

i might never stop stirring, so entranced am i by all this back-and-forthing across the pond on the fine points of porridge.

but one more morsel (or two) before i close the oat bin: it should come as no surprise that a lump of gruel that’s been synonymous with breakfast since the year 1000 anno domini might carry with it a millennia’s prescription and particulars. for instance, the scots saw fit to carve up an oat-stirring stick, one that goes by the name spurtle, and if you’re a proper porridge stirrer, you’ll have one lodged in your kitchen drawer. it’s practically guaranteed to keep your oats from going all lumpy.

and of course, the brits have dedicated porridge pots: the porringer, a shallow bowl, often pewter or silver, dates back to medieval times, and weaves through history, a specialty ware of paul revere, colonial banger of metals when not galloping at breakneck speeds, announcing the coming of pesky porridgey brits. nowadays, the porringer is apt to be a specially-developed double boiler, or bain-marie, preferred for keeping oats from sticking to the pot bottom. and as if that wasn’t plenty, it’s thought that the lower temperature under the oats (provided by double-decker cookpot) might boost the little darlings’ cholesterol-busting capabilities. so scurry along, and grab your porringer.   

but before you dash: the tried-and-true road to proper porridge, for which i turn to no less than london cooking sensation, nigel slater, who instructs:

THE RECIPE
Traditionally made with water ( The Scots Kitchen – F Marian McNeill’s recently republished 1929 classic – recommends spring water), it is sometimes made with hot milk. Stirring is essential if the porridge is to be truly creamy. You need a handful of oatmeal to a breakfast cup of water and a pinch of salt. To quote from McNeill: “Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point, add the oatmeal in a steady rain from the left hand, and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.” Add the salt after it has been cooking on a low heat for 10 minutes. Serve with sugar, cream or a little more salt.
THE TRICK
If the salt is introduced too early, it can harden the oats. Porridge needs cooking for longer than you think if the starch is to be fully cooked. It should be served piping hot – try the old Scottish habit of spooning it into cold bowls and having a dish of cream or buttermilk handy to dip each spoonful in before you raise it to your lips.
THE TWIST
Use both coarse and fine oatmeal to give texture. (The larger the oat, the earlier you need to add it.) Stir in blueberries or blueberry compote (150g blueberries, 2 tbsp sugar, a squeeze of lemon simmered for 10 minutes). Raspberry purée is another favourite addition, as is golden syrup and cream. I have been known to add a swirl of marmalade, too, but it might upset the horses.

and that, dear friends, is a proper porridge. creamy moats. knobs of butter. slow road to morning prayer. and all.

are you of the morning oats persuasion, and if so, have you discovered the zen of stirring and stirring and stirring your oats? national oatmeal season

the candle burns

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our house is blanketed in sadness. layers and layers of sadness. landscapes of uncharted sadness: a son without the father he adored, grandsons without the grandpa who told them knock-knock jokes and reveled in their every triumph. and all of us — since sunday, when news of one death tumbled atop another — without a lifelong friend who, across the decades, animated our dinner table, our hearts, and taught us fearlessness in the face of whatever life hurled our way.

in five short days, we lost two of the dearest souls in our deepest closest orbit.

and so, at our house, sadness ebbs and flows, one minute casting shadow dark and dense; the next, scuttling off, clearing space for light to fill the room. we are wrapped in varied textures of mourning — we mourn a life lived long, and another one snuffed out far too soon. grief catches us by the heart, not letting go. grief leaves us gasping. grief, as it so often does, so especially when it’s just cracked open once again, plays tricks and mind games; we snap our heads and imagine the voice, the someone we love, tumbling through the door, calling on the telephone, springing back to life inside our nighttime’s tossing and turning.

so the candle burns. it burns till the last one of us tiptoes off to bed, and from the moment one of us shuffles into the pre-dawn kitchen.

in its mystical flickering, no matter the shadow cast or beyond the snuffing out of sunbeam at day’s end, it holds me, presses its light against my heart, and reminds me, hour after hour, moment after moment, that souls burn on. that the essence of who we loved still fills the room, is still here to brush up against, to illuminate and magnify the beautiful and the broken.

i’ve never before had a shiva candle burning in my home. and i have found unexpected comfort, caress, in the faint light it casts, hour after hour.

the minute he tumbled in the door from the airport sunday night, my husband pulled from his pocket a small glass jar that held a candle, a yizkor candle, one his mama had handed him as he kissed her and said goodbye in the old white clapboard house by the pond in new jersey, where we had just been joined in a circle of prayer and poetry and remembering.

the candle was a jewish observance of death my husband intended to observe. he didn’t wait before reaching for the kitchen drawer that holds the matches. he struck the match, lit flame to wick, and began the prayer of mourning, the mourner’s kaddish.

the next day, a gray and misty morning, i called the synagogue to ask if they might have another candle, since this short squat one he’d carried home was only meant to burn for 26 hours. and i knew — in that way you know without words spoken — that my husband wanted longer, wanted flame to burn as long as it might light the darkness.

the synagogue had plenty. and so, with rain spitting down on me, i climbed the synagogue steps and stumbled into the embrace of our rabbi, who could not have been kinder, in handing me the candle, the prayer card, the book for the house of mourning. and, that night, when my husband with the heavy heart came home, we lit the seven-day shiva candle, the one that now is burning, that could be burning round-the-clock (except that we’re afraid — despite rabbinic insistence otherwise — of our house going up in shiva flames).

every time i swirl through the kitchen, there it is. flickering. when i’m alone in early morning darkness, there it is, casting golden glow across the maple table, illuminating one small corner of the room. so, too, after nightfall, when i’m the last one up the stairs, when darkness shrouds us once again.

it’s a simple remembrance, yet profound. once again, a quiet nod to the psyche and the soul. a timeless knowing that with death comes darkness, comes a time when one’s whole landscape shifts, and for a time, you cannot find your way. there is no compass out of grief.

not a night has passed in this long last week when our tenderhearted boy, the younger one, the one who’s never known death to brush so close against his heart, not one night that he’s not shed tears upon tears. he has sobbed. and shaken with sadness. so have i. i find myself awash in tears. out of the blue. unstoppable. there is no compass out of grief. no torch to light the way.

and yet, i catch a glimpse of the soft pure incandescence burning from the shiva candle, and i feel as if some tender soul has brushed up beside me. whispered. squeezed me by the hand.

we are cloaked in shades of sadness. we are re-charting the landscape, finding it filled with deep dark holes, ones we tumble down, ones that catch us breathless. we are reaching for the light. we are remembering. we pore over pictures, over words typed and texted just weeks ago. we riffle through our memories, our hearts.

the absence is vast, is limitless.

the soft glow of flame to wick — reminding us that the soul, like the flame, strives heavenward, brings light to darkness — it is constant, and it does not dim.

nor does our love for the ones we lost. may their memory be a blessing. forever and ever. amen.

i’d wanted so very deeply to write a love letter to my beloved friend now gone. but privacy was everything to her, and privacy i will preserve for her. i will, though, post a few pictures — ones already seared in my mind and my heart. two from years and years ago, the first time she came to meet little teddy, just newly born, and one she sent me just this past summer, from sunrise at the shore of lake michigan, where she’d gone for sunrise salutation. finally, because it’s out in the world, an audio tribute to my beautiful friend, from her dear friend, the brilliant writer, alex kotlowitz. savor these moments with my friend, and if you’ve a spare, offer up a prayer for her dearest tenderest circle, her beloved husband of 21 years today, and their two beautiful children, one of whom is the curly-haired beauty at the elbow of and cradled in his mama’s arms in the photos below.

cecimeetsteddy

beholding joy….newborn, unexpected joy….

cecijoy

marveling at the itty-bittiness of a newborn.

zenceci

sun salutation. illuminated in everlasting light.

in your hours of grief, what lit your way?

the eloquence of silence

silence on day that darkens

the sky is gray. as it should be. as my mama long ago told me it would be. had to be. this was the day that jesus hung on the cross. this was the day they call good friday, though i never have, never will, understand that. it’s a friday i nestle into, to be sure. it’s a friday when i will carve out a hollow of silence. i will wrap myself in silence and gray, gray sky.

it’s my practice, because we don’t usually shake off the ways of our earliest days, to contemplate deep and hard these hours when the one who healed the sick, threw out the tax collectors, the one who preached “love your neighbor as yourself,” the one who wept in the garden of gethsemane, he was stripped, and crowned with thorns. he carried the cross of his own dying along the dusty road to golgotha. he fell down. three times. and then, when he came to the place where he was to die, his arms and legs were nailed to limbs of tree, to wooden timbers, and he slowly breathed his last. and before he dropped his head, he called out: “father, forgive them, for they know not what they’re doing.”

and if no other story of the christian narrative compels you, this might be one to contemplate deep and hard all life long.

i never get to the bottom of it. but every year, come this gray, gray friday, i try. i sink deep into what might have been coursing through a holy man on his way to die. i contemplate how it might be to live a life of trying to right the ways of a world that’s side-stepped what matters, that’s lost sight of how to love, of what it means to make peace with enemies, to embrace the cast-aside, the forgotten, the scorned. and then, at the end of that short life, to be condemned to die. to carry the weight of that cross knowing it’s the instrument of your own death.

and all of that i contemplate in silence. it’s one rule from long ago that i try mightily to abide by. my mama made us all be silent. not a word from noon to three, the hours when jesus hung on that cross, the hour when he died. long ago, for all those gray gray fridays, i tiptoed to my bedroom, my one sanctuary in a house of brothers. i sat on my bed, stared out the window at the sky. turned the pages of some evocative telling of those final hours. and waited for the sky to darken, maybe rumble, maybe cleave, at the stroke of three, the hour when jesus died.

and so it is here and now, the silence that will infuse the afternoon, when i will retreat to my room, stare out the window, turn the page of some evocative retelling of this gray gray friday. though i don’t, and haven’t, set that rule in my house, have not made my boys abide (though i do offer it as suggestion, nearly every year). i follow all alone the rule of silence.

there is such eloquence in silence, particularly amid this noisy, cacophonous world. there is wisdom in allowing thoughts to flow, to follow their course deep down to where the inklings come. or the knowing. it’s as if the rivulets of thawing spring find their way to rushing creek, where the bubbling up begins.

it’s rare and it’s a gift, this setting aside an afternoon for silence. for holy thought. for deepening.

and this gray gray friday, there is much to contemplate. to breathe deep and fill my soul.

the wonder of this particular good friday is that as i pull away from the afternoon’s silence, i will turn to passover’s story of exodus. and there i will be gathered at a table and that story will be told and retold. two compelling narratives in one day at our house. so it is, the blessing of being both. last night, at the mass of the last supper, i listened as one reading told the escape-from-egypt story, and the next told how jesus sat down to the seder, the passover feast, the one that we’ll sit down to tonight and tomorrow night. the intermingling of narratives, the points of intersection, they’re not missed by me. and it’s all part, i think, of what makes the good friday story even more compelling. the contemplation of the depths from which it flowed.  

this morning i thought i was going to burrow deep on the subject of silence, but, as so often happens, the sentences took me elsewhere. took me this time into jesus and the hours of this deepening afternoon. i don’t often write overtly about the tenets of my religion, or tell its stories here, but indeed they resonate and deeply draw my attention.

minutes after writing the words above, i sat down with my most beloved haggadah (the book that holds the story of the exodus, and outlines the prescriptions for the seder, the passover retelling and feasting); it’s the new american haggadah, edited by jonathan safran foer, published in 2012, and it’s brilliant. i read these words:

“we are not merely telling a story here. we are being called to a radical act of empathy.

oh, i wish i’d read those words before i started writing this morning. they grabbed me by the throat, and hold me in their grasp. we are being called to a radical act of empathy. jewish or christian, the stories of this holy blessed weekend are calling us to radical acts of empathy. and therein lies the miracle. that we have the capacity to enter.

contemplate the radical act of empathy in how, in our lives, we are called to feel from inside those beyond ourselves.

and my original first question of the morning:

do you, amid your busy days, ever declare interludes of silence, to follow the rivulets of thawing spring to the rushing creek where bubbling comes?

hours of sorrows

silence on day that darkens

amid this breathless week of passover seders and holiest hours, amid trying to pack lunches kosher for passover, and waking up early to stir and bake passover coffee cakes (in which it’s the egg white that’s relied upon for alchemy, to lift the leaden matzoh into something that falls on the tongue with delicate bite), amid wondering what to serve our muslim houseguest when she’s here for easter brunch while we’re keeping kosher for passover, today is the day i deep breathe.

today, good friday, holy friday, friday of sorrows at the nadir of the week, this is the day when the noon hour comes, and the sky darkens (at least in my searching imagination it does), and i retreat to my quietude. and my sorrows.

sorrows not my own, but sorrows for the world. sorrows of which there are too, too many. the more you read the newspapers, the more you turn the pages of memoir, the more and more you realize the world is shrouded in darkness. darkness that demands whatever energies we have to battle it back. to insist we’re not letting it win. we’re not standing by in abeyance. we’re not washing our hands, turning and dropping the ball, leaving the dirty work to anyone else.

on this day, in these hours of sorrows, i turn to that ancient and ever-birthing instrument of petition and promise: i pray. i pray on my knees (till my old bones tell me to stop, anyway). i pray curled by my window, my eyes deep in the words on the page. i pray all alone, just me and the God who is listening. listening, i’m certain.

this year, i’m bringing along a wisp of a book, a book originally published in 1955, before i was born, a book i searched for and found this year because its words had so stirred me, sitting in the pews at a church not far away in miles, but legions away in raw earthy truths. it’s a church filled with a few dozen languages and skin from pitch-black to blotchy from tears. it’s a church where i go to feel naked, to feel in communion with the messy stuff of humanity. i’ve seen old women, bent and bowed, rocking with tears, and mumbling half out loud. i’ve seen fat brown-skinned babies dunked in the holy waters. i’ve seen walkers and wheelchairs and crutches and canes. the whole lot of God’s sorrows streaming up to communion.

the book, this book that speaks to me, speaks to all who gather at st. nick’s and beyond, it’s “the way of the cross,” written and illustrated back in 1955 by caryll houselander, and you can find it from liguori publications, down missouri way.

way of the cross

now this caryll houselander, she was a bit of a rabble-rouser (a chain-smoking, profanity-spewing 20th-century british catholic mystic, artist, woodcarver, prolific author, teacher of disturbed children, counselor of the war-traumatized, widely known as “the divine eccentric”).

she liked her religion messy, she liked it to speak from the hollows of the human heart. and she lifted it out of long-ago millennia and into the moment, for me anyway. she puts me there in the dust at the side of the via dolorosa, the quarter-mile road in old jerusalem where jesus carried the cross, falling not once or twice but three times under the weight of those shoulder-crushing timbers. up the hill to calvary, where, upon that cross, he cried out, “father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, with his mother weeping at the foot of the cross, he let out the gurgly rattle of death, and he died.

we all have words in our lives with magical mystical powers, words that unlock some soulful place in us. caryll houselander’s “way of the cross” does it for me.

here she is on veronica, the compassionate woman who burst through the rabble to come face to face with the tormented jesus. here she is, caryll houselander, with the pleading to God inspired by veronica wiping the face of jesus, a soulful act of compassion if ever there was:

give me Your eyes

to discern the beauty of your face,

hidden under the world’s sorrow.

give me the grace

to be a Veronica;

to wipe away

the ugliness of sin

from the human face,

and to see

Your smile on the mouth of pain,

Your majesty on the face of dereliction,

and in the bound and helpless,

the power of Your infinite love.

 

Lord take my heart

And give me Yours.

quietly, i leave you to enter your own pleadings and sorrows.

may this be a day steeped in the Holy. may your hours of sorrows draw you into a depth of compassion that lifts you beyond your own full deck of worries.

another road into compassion:  a few months back, i mentioned here that i was working on a story about a 20-year-old former star swimmer and water polo player who suffered a brain aneurysm in the fall of his senior year of high school and now lives in the hell called “locked-in syndrome.” the story just came out in marquette magazine, and web wizards masterfully interlaced film clips throughout the words of the story. if you are hungry for a bit of humbling today, you might want to click on patrick stein’s story here, as published in the magazine. 

how will you spend the hours of sorrows? 

back to business

back to business

i nearly forgot how much i ached all day monday, the day my firstborn packed his bags, flapped his arctic wings and flew back to the hills of western massachusetts. i nearly forgot how the whole day felt like an uphill climb, and how each time my little one and i looked each other in the eye, we knew we were hollowed, were drained, had just had the plug pulled out of our sink.

blessedly, we birthed a tradition back on that uphill empty day. our dear across-the-streets were suffering the same heart drain, had just sent their elder child off to the vermont woods, and what with a vat of leftover beef stew in the fridge, and a pot of mashed potatoes to boot, we inaugurated what we think will become our annual “plus three instead of minus one” rite of soothing our oozing parts. and, as they walked in with a hot-out-of-the-oven blueberry-blackberry crispy-crumbly, all vapors of heartache up and went poof! (forgive us, you faraway children, it’s not that you’re a solid swap for fruits under buttery wraps, it’s just that, well, a dousing of sugar makes your leave-taking all the gentler to swallow.)

the polar cold didn’t loosen its hold till late tuesday night, so it took till wednesday for school to re-open and, thus, the real world to settle back in, the post-holiday, post-new year, back-to-business rhythms that i, for one, find as cleansing and invigorating as a frothy green drink chock-full of parsley and kale and mustardy greens.

why, i even hauled out the scrub bucket and mop. dis-assembled the yule tree. penned the thank you’s. tucked away the holiday dainties (to use a vintage wordchoice for confections, one i bumbled upon over the new-year stretch). turned in a book review. ironed the christmas-y napkins, tucked them away for a long winter’s nap.

i was gettin’ down to business in a scrub-dutchy way.

it is what january calls for, if you put your ear to the frosty winds and listen hard. diligent work, assiduous effort, those are the siren songs of the month at the top of the year.

in my case, it feels like it’s been far too long since i’ve gotten down to serious business. put nose to grindstone and cranked out a solid assignment. and, wonder of wonders, i find that i hum when working hard. when i can hold up a tangible something at the end of the day, and say, softly: “i did this.”

any day now, the last batch of edits are due from my little book’s editor, and then i’ll be sailing toward the copy editing desk. and i’ve promised myself i’ll get brave and dial up one or two assigning editors, in hopes of plunking some coins in my decidedly bony porcine bank, the one that’s teetering on nothing but fumes. in the meantime, i’ve signed up for an online poetry course, one that will hold walt whitman up to the light and bring a cambridge lecture hall here to my old maple table. and, for pure delight and because i believe in it as one of life’s richest assemblages, i’m picturing a dining table filled with madly opinionated, yarn-spinning chroniclers of everyday truth, wisdom and hilarity.

it’s january and the year is filled with promise. time to shake off the sloth, and see what i can pull from the depths of my deeply blessed soul.

how ’bout you? what’s on your i-promise-to-do list, not because you feel obliged but simply because it inspires? 

that framed moment above was just before my firstborn shuffled out the door with his duffle sack. the little one, leaning into him with all his sagging heart, not wanting him to go. ever. it’ll be months, and three full seasons, before he returns. these long pauses never get easier. and the heartache never dulls. so flow the rhythms of loving a faraway child. 

birthday fairy steps aside

happens every day. all the best of ’em come to that square on the game board called life when they know it’s time to go. hang up the hat. hook the keys on the nail. tiptoe quietly off to the wings.

happened here last night. i swore i heard the swoosh of her wings, the birthday fairy, as she peeked in the window one last time. pressed her delicate pink nose against the glass, blew a kiss, and flew on.

for the first time in 18 years, the blessed balloon-blowing, poster-wielding, crepe-paper-draping fairy of birthdays did not wreak havoc beside the twin bed where my firstborn snoozed. she did not wind ribbons of crinkly crepe round his bedposts and doorknobs, she did not weave and dodge and try to slither out without waking the dozing log of a boy, who year by year got longer and longer, slept more and more soundly.

for the first time since the year he turned 1, she did not romp through the night making merriment.

it was time, she realized, for the big strapping lad to get on with his life without her.

poor thing, she’s probably curled up on some lily pad this lonely morning licking her wounds.

it’s not easy to give up a post you’ve loved, with a boy you long ago tucked tightly under your wing.

oh, if you peeked in his closets you’d find posters counting up every last year. “top 13 reasons you are loved.” “happy 4 we love you.” “why we love you….(continued from ’06)” and on and on it goes. a numerical stair step through childhood. a boy loved beyond words, but not beyond magic markers and poster boards and his very own fairy’s whimsical ways.

all the way to 18, she kept at it. each year needing to schedule her visit later and later, to account for the nocturnal ways of a teen hurdling toward adulthood. she carried him — oh, yes, she did — right through to the ledge, where little boy ways are folded up and tucked into memory boxes, and voting and driving and first sips of scotch slide onto the landscape.

so last night, despite the tugging there at her heart, despite her teetering back and forth, wondering if maybe one last time she might crank up the markers, haul out the rolls of festooning, she thought back over the subtle signs of the last year, the year far away at college, and all the ways she had come to realize, to know through and through, that it was time to honor the grownup in her midst. to let go of what was, and find a whole new way to embrace the whole of him.

so, for the first time, there was no mad-dash scrambling of pens and puns and ways to spell out “i love you” in numbers and words and silly scribblings.

instead, there was a mama who sat down at her typing board, and typed out a letter, every last word of it moistened by the tears that started to fall and would not stop, not till after the two typed pages were paper clipped, folded and slipped into the envelope marked with a hand-drawn red heart.

this time, on the eve of 19, she did not hide behind fairy wings and bright colored markers. nope, she told him the one thing she wanted him to know: that from the beginning till beyond the beyond, she was the one who loved him like nobody’s business. she was the one true place to which he could always turn, no matter what life throws his way. she will forever be the beacon burning on the hill, over the harbor.

then, when dawn broke and the birthday sky brightened, she hopped in the old wagon and drove to the diner with the cheesy hash he so loves. she scooped up a platter to-go, along with a bacon-cheese omelet, and plunked it all down on the bright red birthday plate, the same one she’s set on the table since back on the day he turned 1.

good thing for that sweet old fairy, there is one more lad in this house, snoozing up in his bed. and he is not yet 11.

our fairy, her load might be lessened, but we’re not done with her yet. she’s got miles of markers before she sleeps, miles and miles of markers and streamers and a rare gift of joy that will never ever grow old.

happy, happy birthday, sweet beautiful will. love, your very own fairy.

what are the life markers you’ve had to retire at your house? and what ones do you forever cling to?